Getting Experience with User Experience

Getting started in any field can be tricky and initially overwhelming, and UX is no exception. UX designer and UX Booth contributor Mike Altman walks green UXers through the pros and cons of working at various types of organizations right out of the gate.

So you know you want to shape the digital user experience of…something. Welcome to life after college. Now what? I often get asked by recent graduates “Where do I even start looking for experience and work?”

If you’re asking that question, then you’re already on the right track. Many UX veterans have changed careers to UX and eased their way into the field. There isn’t much of a clear path for those who are just starting out and have a formal UX related education. The challenge becomes getting a foot in the door and putting those book smarts to work with a career.

The experience you get and the amount you learn is most certainly dependent on your motivation, resourcefulness, and ability to work with others. One of the variables that can help cultivate your skills as a UX Professional is where you choose to incubate your skills.

I have found that the size and type of organization can play a role in the learning experience and growth. Let’s take a close look at how work environments can differ from each other for those looking to start careers in UX.

Start-up

All that money the big boys like Twitter and Facebook made didn’t come without blood, sweat, and caffeine. Get ready for lots of iterating, collaborating, and hat wearing. The workday may not be very structured and there may not be much in the way of a fancy UX lab or conferencing equipment. For someone new to UX, though, this can be a blessing. Startup UX is very grass roots. Gabi Moore sums it up eloquently:

For startups, you really can’t be perfect, you can’t afford all of the specialists that are needed to make a really awesome product. But something is always better than nothing. It’s just a matter of what that something can be.

You improvise user tests in loud cafes, you sketch on napkins, and you make presentations over Skype. Learning the basics and how to use the tools and resources available to you will help you appreciate and understand the fundamentals of user experience.

If you’re working at a start-up, you’ll notice that jobs have a tendency to grow or disappear very quickly, so it’s a good idea to keep in touch with your local user experience and start-up communities. They’ll serve as your mentors and provide a safety net as you grow into your user experience role.

Not only will you work very closely with people of a wide variety of skills, but you will get experience doing lots of things that aren’t strictly UX or even UX related. You’re likely to wear many hats within the company due to the pure lack of bodies to go around. Knowing how the gears of digital projects turn (outside of your own little UX corner) will make you a valuable asset to anyone lucky enough to hire you in the future.

Agency

In an agency, you’ll get good and you’ll get good fast. Agency experience is experience in dog years; although the work has a tendency to come in waves, those waves crash hard and loud. Be ready for long hours and high stress. Thanks to the way you’ll be billing your hours to the clients, you’ll likely be keeping one eye on the clock and the other on the quality of what you’re churning out. And you’ll have to speak to that quality and defend it to clients who don’t know you or your skills very well. You may work on 4 projects at a time, and once they are gone and out the door, that may be the last time you see or think about them.

It’s a little tricky to find an agency with a mentor who has the time to devote to formal training. Instead, you’re more likely to find someone with experience whom you can bounce questions and ideas off of. In most cases, it would benefit you to do as much reading and studying up as you can during the down times.

Though this may sound pretty rough, there are upsides: variety, efficiency, and interpersonal skills that will never become obsolete or out of date. Within a very short period of time, you may find yourself getting very comfortable interfacing with stakeholders, presenting to scary folks in big leather chairs, defending your work, and learning how to compromise (at least with less teeth-gritting than you may otherwise endure).

And speaking of getting comfortable in otherwise difficult situations, you might just find yourself picking up expertise in strange places—get ready to tap into your inner anthropologist. Within a 6-month period I learned the ins and outs of the designer fashion consignment industry all while learning how custom wedding invitations are glued. And it was complicated.

Small company

At a small company, you’ll spend your time with only a few projects, rather than the crashing project waves of an agency. You will get to know them inside and out. The benefit of working on fewer projects for longer periods of time is that you can build on your own research during the product lifecycle. You’ll get the chance to design something, then go back to test and refine. There is no better way to learn than from your own mistakes.

Where user experience has yet to make it into the lifeblood of the company, you’ll get to evangelize the importance of user experience to any outsiders and nonbelievers. You’ll learn how UX fits into the processes of managers, developers, visual designers, and marketers. Within a year you should be pretty good at wireframing, sketching, creating user flows, writing functional specs, and running and applying findings from all types of user testing.

You’re likely to work on a team of people in the same field as you, but with different philosophies and experience to bring to the table and learn from. Collaborating and working alongside like minds is a great way to get your feet wet while keeping a safety net in place for those times you mess up.

With fewer projects comes the risk of getting bored and the feeling that you may be falling behind with trends and new buzzwords. Make sure you love what you’re working on and push yourself to learn new skills.

Medium / large company

A larger company certainly has its advantages over the little guys. Part of the job here is evangelizing good user experience practices while learning how to win small battles. Asserting yourself as an expert (or what I call “UX street cred”) can make your job a joy, and it’s a powerful skill to have in your back pocket. You may get the chance to impact methodology, improve corporate outlook and strategy for user experience, and affect huge projects. Making a difference at a large company is an incredible feeling.

There is usually room for steady growth and more responsibility (as opposed to most “flatter,” smaller companies). The trade off is you may find yourself having to navigate a maze of high school-like politics and drama. One of the common responsibilities of a UX professional at a medium or large sized company is maintaining and being the guardian of human interface guidelines, functional specifications and personas. A lot of best practices should already be in place when you get there, so this is a great place to learn the basics.

Academia / corporate research

Some UXers really enjoy being at the front lines of technological innovation and industry standards with human computer interaction. The research that UX professionals cite to colleagues and clients, the stuff that’s supporting their recommendations, has to come from somewhere… and that somewhere is you. Be ready to get very good at running and facilitating structured and rigorous user tests.

By doing funded research, you’ll probably get access to testing labs and the ability to play with cool new technology years before the neighbor’s kid gets to. Researchers were designing and refining gestural recognition and touch interfaces decades before they made it into the Kinect and iPhone.

If you get a chance to work with students, you may find you learn just as much from them as they learn from you. And the best part? You’ll probably work very close with a professor; who could ask for a better mentor?

Keep in mind, that if you plan to leave this kind of position in the future, you’ll be leaving without gaining valuable experience with client/stakeholder management, presenting, and budgeting time. With the (potentially) flexible hours, this kind of job may pair well with occasional freelance work to make you a well-rounded UX machine (but shhh, don’t tell the brass).

Go forth and make us proud

The scale of and variability between companies and organizations obviously varies, as do the types of experience and work. Naturally, there are exceptions to all of these observations and they really depend on you. No matter how you chose to step into a UX career, there is no replacement for creating your own learning opportunities. That means not stopping when your workday ends, reading anything and everything UX related, and being active in your local and/or online UX community.

Question from the Editor: What kinds of places do you think best help prepare new UXers for a bold and bright career? Let us know in the comments!

About the Author

Mike Altman

Mike Altman is currently a UX Designer at Amazon AWS in Seattle and spends his evenings mentoring and working on a new venture for higher ed called Alumni Fund. He spends his weekends being an adrenaline junkie/mountain goat in... well, the mountains. You can find him on Twitter.

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12 Comments

  • Ray DeLaPena Reply

    Mike,

    Do you distinguish between agency and consultancy? I have been in small to medium consultancies for almost 15 years and it has been an incredibly intensive education in UX.

    There are more and more consultancies that offer or even specialize in user-centered design. The type of products I get to work on, being at one such consultancy, are varied and extremely interesting. I think it’s partly because clients that choose to work with this type or organization have a certain expectation and trust in the consultants they partner with and therefor, I have a bit more latitude to do things “the right way” than I have seen (albeit from the outside) on the agency side.

    You also seem to have left off freelance work as a source of experience. By finding a few small clients on your own, you can build up enough of a portfolio to help get your foot in the door at one of the other types of organizations you list.

    Thanks for the post. Hope to continue the conversation.

    - Ray

    • Mike Reply

      Thanks for your comment Ray!

      I’ve had the good fortune of working for agencies who value UX as part of the process and sell it as it’s own service to clients. I’ve been seeing this more and more with agencies over the years much like you mention seeing more and more specialized consultancies.

      I personally don’t have any experience working for or with a consultancy. Would you agree that the day-to-day and high level skills you learn are similar to that of an agency?

      That’s a great point about freelance, it’s certainly an excellent place to get your a foot in the door. The best way to learn is by doing right?

      - Mike

  • John E. Thompson Reply

    I experienced the agency portion for about 2 months and am currently in a mid/small interactive company… and you pretty much nailed it on the head for me.

    I would one-up what you’ve said to say: Try the different kinds of porridge! See which one fits YOU, in terms of company size, work atmosphere, projects, stress frequency, all that stuff. You probably won’t get it in the first shot, but if that’s the case, you won’t feel to bad leaving it after a short time to try something else!

  • Joe Baz Reply

    It’s unfortunate that agencies get such a bad rap on “high stress and long hours”, and based on my personal experience working for agencies and with agencies, I’ve seen this be the case.

    I think agencies need to take a different track and not become a slave to their client. They should place more emphasis on integrity by taking on clients that can respect them instead of taking on clients that think of them as a vending machine in exchange for a good portfolio item for a hefty buck.

    This is something that is really important to me and my company, and one that’s allowed us to have a balanced work / personal life while still allocating time for mentorship and side projects. Shameless plug aside, I would love to see other agencies push the concept of relationship further by asking in addition to giving. At the end of the day, we are all human beings and the best agency-client relationships come when both sides value and respect each other.

  • Matt Reply

    I have a UX position open at a small company in the Dallas TX, area. It’s a web application heavy with all kinds of data visualization.

    email me if interested: luv2code at gmail dot com.

  • Rudy Chou Reply

    It seems many companies looking for UX designers are looking for HTML/CSS front end developers who specialize in implementing some sort of jQuery library for interaction.

    To me, thats just not UX. UX involves much more and you sure summarized the different career paths possible.

    Thanks for the write up. Appreciate reading your posts as always.

    • Torry Reply

      Agree.

      They are not hiring “designer”, instead they are looking for some one to implement their “idea”

      What we can do is: bring more to the desk, show our capability, and turn their “idea” to our “design” with sufficient works and talks.

      :)

  • Charles Lai Reply

    Where can we look for these academia/corporate research jobs? Are these targeting more PhD type candidates?

  • Figgy Reply

    Great article.

    In my case, having worked in the industry for about 16 years now, even the term “UX/UI”, much less my job title, “IA” seems new to me by comparison, as I’ve worked for the longest time as a web designer and frontend coder/developer. So in my case, what seems significant now that I’m working for one of the top ecomm retailers of all time (based here in Maine), I’m 100% sure that all of my experience has pushed me, led me up to the position I currently hold because daily I draw upon my knowledge and experience in design and development over the years. So my opinion is, UX/IA isn’t something you just slide into, but rather, something you more like work up to after some years of practical experience.

    DC

    • Mike Reply

      Thanks for your reply!

      I agree that experience is incredibly valuable in UX, but this is no different than it is in any other specialty be it a developer, designer, or medical doctor. I too came into UX from a different career path, but I have to respectively disagree with you on it not being something you can slide into.

      Some 25 years ago, there was no such thing as a (digital) graphic designer. Now there are entire colleges devoted to the specialty. Although the field of UX existed for a long time (in some form or another), the simple fact that there is discrepancy in job titles for UX’ers bodes well for all of us. People are starting to pay attention. There are plenty of UX jobs out there, especially in these uncertain economical times.

      I believe that people that who are passionate about UX and are willing to do the work it takes to make it their career, should not have to go about it in a roundabout way (as you, myself, and many others may have). The demand is high, and UX as a profession should be accessible to anyone. Much like any other profession. The only thing lacking is a clear path to gaining experience.

  • kd Reply

    Some really good pointers in the article. Definitely a good encouragement to those of us who are just getting into the industry

  • dhanna Reply

    As a novice way back then, I tend to read other blogs and articles to take down notes of key points to success. And their stories really keep me going and they help me get inspired and motivated just by reading their experiences.

    As said, we don’t need to experience all the lessons in life,learn from others as if you were in the same situation and take the lessons out of it.

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